Albatross VS Crossbow: Nature VS Machine
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” continues to captivate readers with its sometimes gruesome but always delightfully creepy images of the natural world versus the supernatural world. It is so rich in imagery and imagination that it remains one of the most talked about poems nearly two hundred years after being written. Although Coleridge explores facets of the supernatural, the heart of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” lies within its commentary on humanity versus the natural world and the negative effects humanity inflicts upon nature.
The antagonistic relationship between humanity and the natural world is the central focus of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. One of man’s most impressive attempts at harnessing nature is seen in his obsession with controlling the sea, a theme which Coleridge takes a negative stance against. His lament on the abuse humanity continually inflicts upon nature is made apparent throughout the mariner’s story by the way he punishes the mariner for his human egoism. The curses inflicted upon the mariner occur because of his inability to respect nature.
“The Ship was cheer’d” (line 25) as they made their way “merrily” (26) to roam through the majestic ocean. The ocean, and nature, prove to be great adversaries to ships when “the STORM-BLAST came, and he/ Was tyrannous and strong” (41-42). Nature becomes even more of an obstacle when it encases the ship with ice and fog. The sometimes cruel and unhelpful nature of the outside repels the arrogant humans who presume to think that everything should bend to their whims. The fog and mist made them angry so they cursed the weather, yet when another form of nature approached they were ready to praise it, showing the fickleness of humanity. It is only when another side of nature intervenes, the higher nature spirit in the form of the Albatross, that the ship is then able to proceed. “Through the fog [the Albatross] came” (62) and the crew feed the bird with “food it ne’er had eat” (67), illustrating that humanity can peacefully co-exist with nature when it serves their purpose.
Humanity’s lack of respect towards nature is also seen in the way humans attempt to control nature. At times, the ship’s crew are happy to be out amongst nature, at one with the sea, until the fog and ice move in. The audacity of nature to displease them evokes their anger and the mariner seeks a scapegoat in the Albatross. Humanity’s compliance with nature is utterly destroyed the moment nature ceases to prove beneficial to the whims of man. Seemingly without much thought the mariner points his machine of destruction; “With my cross-bow/ I shot the ALBATROSS” (81-82). Using a human mechanism against nature, the mariner has unwittingly cast a curse upon himself and his crew after he “had done a hellish thing” (91). The crew chastise the mariner for killing the bird only because the Albatross “made the breeze to blow” (96) rather than from any moral reasons. When it is argued that the bird brought about the fog and mist the rest of the crew, representing humanity as a whole, say “’Twas right, said they, such birds to slay” (101).
Humanity constructs its own version of nature, and therefore the natural, and the mariner, representing the negative side of a domineering humanity, views the supernatural in his own familiar terms. The description of Death and Life-In-Death both utilize a human vehicle, even though there are supernatural elements also embodied by them. Once more, the imagery of ships are used as the two supernatural beings approach the mariner. “Her sails that glance in the Sun” (183-184) is the first glimpse the mariner has of Death approaching and then he sees “the Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH” (193) on the ship as the “naked hulk alongside came” (195). When they “play” for his life they use a man-made tool, dice, because humanity has so far removed itself from the natural context that something of its own making is necessary to mitigate humanity’s destiny.
The supernatural elements of Death and Life-In-Death use man-made devices such as the ships and the dice, another instance where Coleridge juxtaposes the natural versus humanity while showing that they also rely on one another. The dice represent the listless fate of humanity. The game of dice relies purely on chance, there is no strategy. When Life-In-Death cries “The game is done! I’ve won! I’ve won!’ Quoth she, and whistles thrice” (197-198) she sounds genuinely surprised, reinforcing the haphazard nature of the game that has so much resting on it. Humans are so ineffectual in their own agency that their lives are precariously made by chance. Not only is the fate of humanity contingent on randomness, it is also controlled by others. It could be argued that there is no particular reason that the mariner lives while the others die because the random roll of the dice applies meaningless consequences.
Another overlapping of the natural and the supernatural and its relationship with humanity is seen in the bodies of the humans themselves. The supernatural combines with man-made mechanisms when “every soul, it passed me by,/ Like the whiz of my cross-bow!” (222-223). The men aboard the ship are killed by the curse, Death wins their lives, and their bodies are overtaken with supernatural spirits. This begins with the negative possession but later, after the mariner’s redemption, the “good” supernatural spirits overtake the bodies once more to free the ship from its eerie immobile position. Not only is humanity faced with the supernatural outside of themselves but they also are so much a part of nature, whether they want to acknowledge this fact or not, that the supernatural is also within humanity. The natural bodies are taken over in order to utilize man-made machines, seen when “They raised their limes like lifeless tools –/ We were a ghastly crew” (339-340). The organic is used as tools, once more blurring the distinctions between humanity, nature, and the supernatural.
The mariner is forced to wear a carcass as penance for his sin that has cursed the entire crew. He replaces a man-made cross around his neck with the natural body of the Albatross. Man is born in bare skin, then “evolves” so-to-speak, and adds man-made adornment to himself, only to remove it and replace it with the natural once more. The cross represents humanity’s search for religious answers, yet when things become most dire, it is nature that humanity must return to in order for real absolution. Man tries to tame religion, a higher being, yet he fails in this because he is seeking the wrong authority.
The correct authority, according to Coleridge, is nature and humanity will suffer unless it releases its naivety and arrogance. Man’s obsession with machinery and domination over everything, including nature and the elements, creates dire consequences. By stopping and appreciating nature humanity can save itself and enjoy a symbiotic relationship with nature. Scholar C. U. M. Smith points out that “The whole argument of The Ancient Mariner turns on a sudden sympathetic understanding that the ‘thousand thousand slimy things’ crawling on the rotting sea were in fact beautiful living creatures” (35). When the mariner is stripped of his egoism he is able to stop and enjoy life; not only human life but the life of everything around him.
Unfortunately for the mariner and his crew, it takes a horrific journey for him to realize that he needs to find equality amongst the rest of nature. Even when the crew see a glimmer of hope in the Albatross they still project their misplaced worship of God upon the bird. Coleridge describes “…an Albatross/ Through the fog it came;/ As if it had been a Christian soul/ We hailed it in God’s name” (63-66). The mariner applies his religious ideology onto the bird rather than simply trusting the goodness and power of nature. If he had been one with nature than he would have known not to kill an innocent creature for mere sport. His human superiority has diseased his mind and reasoning, causing him to act recklessly and without regard to what may happen as a result of is selfish deeds.
Religious worship is humanity’s supernatural answer to life’s questions. In this way, Coleridge shows humanity’s attempts to tame not only the natural world but the supernatural world as well. The mariner describes a scene he observes: “Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head,/ The glorious Sun uprist” (97-98). Again, man controls nature because he is unable to exist as equals with the rest of the world. He must rule both nature and the supernatural. If the mariner had not been consumed with this urge than he could have saved the lives of his crew by respecting the Albatross and subverting the curse. Instead, he felt as though he had to end the life of the pure creature because the Albatross held power, at least in the view of the crew, and by snuffing out nature’s power it siphons that energy back to the one who dominated it.
Humanity’s thirst for domination is seen again and again in history. Academic Michelle Levy argues that Coleridge attributes much of the mariner’s obsession with dominating nature to society’s need for sensationalized accounts of exerting power over others. Levy asserts that “The Mariner” “extends beyond their recommendation of the domestic affections to their recognition that the desire for discovery and conquest was profoundly inflamed by printed accounts of discovery and conquest” (694). This domineering craze fueled the arrogance of humans and Coleridge represents this in his mariner.
The dilemma humans face as they attempt to make sense of the universe around them is at the core of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Fear of the unknown such as the mariner repeatedly encounters is what feeds the bravado put forth by humans. Human fear is not only confined to the horrific and terrifying scenes at sea, that fear exists in the human condition everywhere. The wedding guest who becomes captivated with the mariner’s story is an example of the wide-spread anxiety humans have in regards to control, both being in control and the lack of it The wedding guest shows that humanity is also afraid of itself. The guest exclaims “I fear thee, ancient Mariner” (345) because the knowledge of human frailty is enough to nearly send the guest into hysterics during the tale. This uncertainty leads to the evils of man-made objects, as seen in the cross-bow, versus the pure natural world represented by the Albatross. The ship and the sailors’ lives are indicative of humanity’s thirst to not only explore the natural world but to rope it in and bend it to humanity’s will.
The mariner’s repentance comes during “The selfsame moment I could pray;/ And from my neck so free/ The Albatross fell off, and sank/ Like lead into the sea” (287-291). His prayer is not only to the human created God but also to the divinity of nature. He has finally shed some of his inherited conceit so that he can now be at peace within the natural world, although he still must pay penance by sharing his story. Life-In-Death continues to play a role in his life, he will never shed this personal tie with the supernatural. The curse and the mariner’s later repentance illustrate the divinity of nature and nature’s ability to both censure and ultimately forgive humanity’s ignorance, to a point. Coleridge uses “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to caution against over-reliance on human machinery, while urging readers to connect with nature. Coleridge’s tale insists humanity find a respectful balance between its selfish desire to dominate and rule the natural world with a healthy admiration and reverence of nature and the supernatural while pointing out the similarities between humanity, nature, and the supernatural.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Broadview Anthology. Vol 4. Broadview: Toronto. 2010. Print.
Levy, Michelle. “Discovery and the Domestic Affections in Coleridge and Shelley.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. 44.4 (2004): 693-713. JSTOR. Web. 1 March 2012.
Smith, C.U.M. “Coleridge’s ‘Theory of Life’ .” Journal of the History of Biology. 32.1 (Spring 1999): 31-50. JSTOR. Web. 1 March 2012.